An Gorta Mór: The Question of the Irish “Genocide”
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Mural in Belfast, UK memorializing An Gorta Mor or "the Great Famine"
By Nat Hill
An “Irish Genocide”?
From 1845 to 1849, one million Irish starved to death, and a further two million fled to North America, England, and Australia; in a desperate gamble to escape starvation. The Irish Potato Blight or as it’s known in Gaelic as An Gorta Mor or “The Great Famine”, is a defining moment in Irish history.
The legacy of the Irish famine is complex and contentious, even more so when it is defined as a “genocide”. Amongst Irish nationalists and the Irish diaspora, the famine is sometimes referred to as “Ireland’s Holocaust”. It is part of an ongoing struggle to reorganize historical commemoration of the famine within the framework of genocide. There are numerous monuments and memorials across the world that recognize the famine as an act of genocide committed by the British, such as the mural shown above in Belfast.
While there is little doubt that the conditions of British policy in colonial Ireland exacerbated the devastation of the Potato Blight; the vast majority of scholars (both Irish and British) agree that the famine was not planned by Britain, with the explicit goals of exterminating the Irish through starvation. Therefore, if abiding by the current legal and political definitions, we cannot conclusively call the Irish Famine, the “Irish Genocide” committed by the British administration.
While the famine may not have been planned per se, Britain clearly demonstrated both genocidal policy and rhetoric both during the famine and throughout Irish history in general. Britain’s slavish devotion to laissez-faire economics, anti-Irish prejudice, poor administration, and neglect during the famine; all exacerbated the effects of the natural occurring famine and indicate some sort of British culpability in the Irish suffering
One example of disregard for the starving Irish, the English civil servant in charge of famine relief Sir Charles Trevelyan, in response to the suffering famously wrote, “The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated.” This statement is a reflection is of “providentialism”, which attributes the cause of the famine as an “act of God”, therefore the British administration simply could not have done anything to help the Irish, which is categorically untrue.
Additionally, the devastating impact on Irish society and culture caused by the millions who starved and emigrated is indicative of genocide. The famine generations later in Irish literature, art, music dance, and religion. Irish Poet Desmond Egan solemnly captures the famine’s impact in his poem Famine, A Sequence:
The stink of famine hangs in the bushes still in the sad celtic hedges
you can catch it down the line of our landscape get its taste on every meal
listen there is famine in our music
famine behind our faces
it is only a field away has made us all immigrants guilty for having survived
has separated us from language cut us from our culture built blocks around belief
left us on our own
ashamed to be seen walking out beauty so honoured by our ancestors
but fostered now to peasants the drivers of motorway diggers unearthing bones by accident under the disappearing hills
As mentioned in Egan’s poem, another tragic consequence was the demise of the Irish language. At the time of the famine, the language was already oppressed by British authorities. Speakers of Irish who tended to be more rural and poorer were disproportionally subjected to starvation contributing to the rapid decline of the Irish language, contributing to the cultural genocide that occurred during the famine.
While the potato famine may not fit perfectly into the legal and political definitions of “genocide”, it should be given equal consideration in history as an egregious crime against humanity. The Irish famine is already taught as part of the educational curriculum in parts of the United States and Ireland and such efforts should be sustained and potentially expanded. Alongside other state-sponsored famines such as the Ukrainian Holodomor, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the Ethiopian Famine; the Irish Potato famine should therefore be considered in the context of genocide.
Nat Hill is the Co-Director of Research at Genocide Watch and the Chief Editor of "The Call" Blog
The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch